Sagramanda: A Novel of Near-Future India by Alan Dean Foster
Pyr Books, 2008, 290pp, $25, ISBN 1-59102-488-9
In the Indian city of Sagramanda, a scientist, Taneer, steals secrets from the multi-national biotech company he worked for and goes on the run, trying to find a buyer for what he has stolen at the same time as avoiding the inevitable retribution.
There seems to be an increasing number of science fiction novels by western writers set in non-western locales; Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Arabesk books and Ian McDonald’s River of Gods are obvious examples. As the economic future of humanity seems to be moving ever more in that direction, it seems inevitable that more sf is being set in the emerging nations. This brings its own dangers for western writers as they attempt to reflect the cultures of these countries in a way which neither patronises nor demonises them, but which simultaneously remains honest about their issues.
So it is interesting that where Sagramanda fails is in its plotting and characterisation rather than its setting. The invented city of Sagramanda feels sufficiently real and rich, reflecting the busyness, crowding and mixture of classes of an Indian city (although, in the interests of full disclosure, I will admit that I have only visited India on business once and so I may not be the best judge. I would be interested in how an Indian reader feels about the depiction of their country). But the characters – and the story they generate – don’t do justice to the carefully worked-out setting.
Any story, be it written or visual, which features someone who has committed a crime as the protagonist needs to do at least one of several things to work well. Either:
- the motive for the crime must be interesting (political; idealistic; the crook desperately needs the funds to achieve an end we understand)
- the committing of the crime itself must be audacious and clever (any number of heist movies, for example)
- the criminals themselves must be either charming or interesting enough that we either want to see them succeed or see what they do next (Raffles, for example, or Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley)
- the cat-and-mouse game between cop and crook must work as the focus – who is the most clever?
And so it becomes clear where the main problem lies with Sagramanda. All we really know is that Taneer has stolen something from his former company and he is trying to sell it. We do not see the crime take place, nor are we given a reason for why Taneer has stolen what he has stolen (beyond wanting to make money out of it). Taneer himself is neither particularly interesting nor virtuous. All we really know about him is that he has ‘rescued’ a beautiful untouchable from a life of prostitution, which has seriously offended his father. In fact, the only thing that gives the reader any reason to want him to succeed is that the person chasing him is worse.
Distracting from the hole at the centre of the story are several other story threads, maybe too many for such a short book – short by modern standards, at least. There is Chal, the ruthless hunter who has been recruited by Taneer’s previous employer to hunt him down. There is Sanjay the shop owner who acts as middle-man for a deal to sell the stolen goods. There is also Jena the serial killer and Keshu, the police inspector who is hunting her. All of these separate threads obviously intersect at some point in the story, but are kept separate through most of it.
It is the last pair that I found most interesting. Jena believes she is the chosen of Kali, tasked with finding the perfect victim to replace Kali’s missing finger. She may be mad but her madness is intriguing and Keshu is sympathetic. If this had been the focus of the story then I would have been much more interested. At the risk of damning with faint praise, as a near-future thriller Sagramanda is competent – if not terribly thrilling.